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How to Write a Book – Part 3

Gaining experience – the Hero’s Journey

Previously in this series we discussed using a narrative in a technical book. This is to get the reader to identify with the hero as he or she travels the road of discovery. This concept is more than just a step by step guide to success. It is a formula for allowing your hero, and thus your reader, to progress. Our hero is unsure as he starts out. The triumphs are small but well won. These little victories give our hero more confidence and as such she grows to meet even greater adversaries. As the opponents get bigger they become less defined. The skills needed to best these beasts are more cerebral and require cunning.

The Dreyfus Model of Skills Acquisition is used to explain the increasing of skills in the readers of technical writing. Patricia Benner’s book From Novice to Expert, explains the Dreyfus Model, a psychological process whereby people learning a new set of skills go through certain stages. As they progress through the stages of experience their learning needs change. Prior to this knowledge it was believed that people were like empty vessels and information was just poured into the unoccupied space. The Dreyfus brothers discovered that people go through stages of learning. As they learn one thing they move on to the next stage. Each stage has its own characteristics.

In the beginning stages, people don’t want to know a lot of theory. They are interested in the mechanical dos and don’ts of what they’re learning. They want cold, hard, practical instruction. The early stages are much like a child with a short attention span. The learner needs a lot of positive reinforcement, after concise, successful steps.

An example is learning to drive. When you get in the car for the first time you do not want to hear about the history of the automobile and Henry Ford’s assembly line. You want to put the key in the ignition and put the car in drive. After you get to know a little about driving you may start to get more interested in where the car came from and who invented the Model T. Your needs have changed and you have moved into a different stage. You need more background information. You want to put things into a broader context. You start developing your intuitions.

That brings us to the technical writer. When outlining your book, remember the stages of learning and your reader’s progression through those stages. As your reader begins his journey through the pages of your book, remember that he is not interested in who invented this amazing machine, or why the people of that time needed a better way to do that particular thing. He just wants to know how to do that thing now. Do not start your book with the theory behind the technology. Do not give a history lesson on this technology.

Begin your book with some humor; a few examples with explanations. This is a tricky point because you do not want to talk down to your readers. Make up a character to take the brunt of your jokes and to show what happens if you make a mistake. Your reader will surely feel smarter than your character and start to feel a little more confident. Start to introduce your technological jargon, slowly by using definitions. Go on the journey with your reader. Use “we” and “us.”

Give your reader some exercises that will take up to fifteen minutes to complete. His confidence is building now. The results need to be single layered. No multi step problems with complicated answers, here. Your reader is becoming more comfortable with the topic and starting to swagger a little.

Increase the challenges as the book progresses. No need to explain every detail now. Start to talk to your reader as if she knows what she is doing. Get into more general descriptions. Even the challenges can be less defined. Use jargon more conversationally. It is okay to throw in definitions subtly, every once in a while. This build up happens throughout the book until you are speaking to your reader as you would a colleague. They have completed the book and now understand everything you do about your topic.

This process described by the Dreyfus brothers is the hero’s journey your readers take every time one of them picks up your book. Instead of the journey from boy to man, your reader will grow from novice to expert.

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